Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spreading the Gospel

Sometimes I really feel like I was born in the wrong half of the country. My sentimental attachments to Michigan, land of my birth, are minimal if my family and friends move elsewhere. The hazy glow of nostalgia will always reserve a spot for the Mitten State in my heart. Nostalgia and this two-foot tall creature who recently learned how to walk: Lydia Rose, my niece. She occupies about half of my heart.

But today I’m not here to gush about how much I love Lydia. I’ll save that for another day. I’m confused about my Northern origins because truthfully, I feel like I should have been born in the South. How else do I explain my fondness for the concept of “Southern hospitality” or Southern men or the idea of sittin’ out on the back porch, drinking mint juleps while someone twangs away on the banjo? Goodness, I even wish I had a Southern accent! In the summertime, I have even been known to pad around in a tube top, but I’m not sure if that says more about my trashiness or my inner Southern chick. Nothing says trashy like a tube top!

Tube tops, mint juleps, and banjoes: that’s the life for me.

A telling sign that I harbor secret Southern longings is the sheer audacity I displayed two months ago. For Christmas, I gave three people copies of a book about that most quintessential of Southern foods, cornbread. How does a Northerner get off giving people a book about cornbread? And to make matters even worse, one of these people is a Southerner, who, if he were loyal to his roots, should put me in my place and tell me that a Northerner ain’t got no business tellin’ anyone anything about cornbread!

But I have no shame; I even served cornbread to this Southerner without batting an eye. He ate it and later asked for the recipe. I was happy to oblige.

This thrice-gifted cookbook is The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon. Her roots are East Coast: she was born in New York and currently resides in Vermont. She did, however, spend most of her adult life in Arkansas, so I think she can reasonably claim some authority when it comes to Southern cooking. I love her because she’s a health-nut hippie who combines the best food writing with great recipes and useful kitchen tips. She’s my kind of woman.

Today I want to share with you the cornbread I make over and over again. It’s an adapted version of Crescent’s Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Buttermilk Cornbread. Since I have no shame (see above) and I will not be denied, I had to adapt this recipe right away to fit my baking equipment. Here I will confess another dirty kitchen secret: I have no cast-iron skillet. While I adore cast-iron skillets, I have yet to invest in my own. Call it laziness or frugality, but I seem to be doing just fine without one. In order to make this cornbread, I swapped out the skillet in favor of my trusty 8-inch square glass baking pan, the one I’ve had since my sophomore year of college and use virtually every week. I am very attached to this pan, as it has assisted my cooking dreams time and again. It’s lasted through two boyfriends, one friend-with-benefits, and one creepy old guy I met on the Internet [shudder]. (Hey, I was young!) It has seen me earn one degree and will likely see me earn my doctorate. I cannot even imagine life without it.

In Crescent’s recipe, butter is melted into the cast-iron skillet on the stovetop, and then the cornbread batter is scraped into the hot skillet (“skillet-sizzled”) and popped into the waiting oven. In my recipe, I melt the butter into the baking pan in the oven, then take it out, scrape the batter into the pan, and put it back into the oven to bake. I have made my version of this cornbread so many times that when I made it the proper way at Thanksgiving last year using the beautiful cast-iron skillet in Daphna and Ian’s kitchen, I felt lost, out of sorts, like I was missing something essential. In truth, that’s what repetition does to a recipe or a method: it becomes your recipe, your method.

Hopefully I don’t offend any diehard Southern cornbread fans with this last confession, but I’m thinking about making—brace yourselves here, folks—a Northern cornbread for my sweet Southern friend when he comes to visit again. I figure if he keeps braving this cold Chicago weather just to spend time in my kitchen, I must be doing something right!

A Northerner’s Butter-Crusted Cornbread
Adapted from Dairy Hollow House Skillet-Sizzled Cornbread in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon

My version of this cornbread is fairly true to the original with the skillet-to-pan adaptation I described above. I like a slightly sweet cornbread, so I use the maximum recommended amount of sugar. I use the minimum recommended amount of butter and I love the result: a buttery, crunchy, golden-brown crust. Go for the corner pieces on this one if you can because they have two sides of crunchy crust. I wouldn’t turn down a middle piece, though, especially when this bread is hot and fragrant from the oven. Serve with hot chili or soup and consider yourself blessed.

1 c. cornmeal
1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
3 tbsp. brown sugar
1 ¼ c. buttermilk
1 egg
¼ c. mild vegetable oil, such as canola oil
2 tbsp. butter

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2) In a large mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar. Stir well to combine.
3) In a smaller bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Whisk the oil into this mixture.
4) Place the butter in an 8-inch square glass baking dish. Pop it in the oven for a few minutes to melt the butter, checking frequently to swirl the butter around and prevent its burning. It should only take a few minutes at most to melt.
5) Once the butter is melted, take the pan out of the oven and quickly mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients using as few strokes as possible. The goal here is to moisten everything, but don’t overmix the batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

6) Bake for ~25-30 min. or until nice and golden-brown on top. Serve hot.


JD said...

We loooooove cornbread here at our house, and I am as northern as they come. I always say, if someone else comes up with a good idea, steal it and make it better :) The Wife and I will be sure to try this when we get a craving for cornbread.

Daphna said...

I have made this so many times now, and it's fab! :)

Daphna said...

Oh wait, I see that you're using brown sugar now? Can you taste a difference? I may have to try this.

Rosiecat said...

JD, I'll have to agree with you: you are as Northern as they come! Your wife makes some tasty honey-sweetened corn muffins, though. She's got some Southern roots, even if she doesn't have a Texas twang. I'll hazard a guess that you'll like this cornbread (or its skillet-sizzled predecessor). Let me know what you think when you try it!

Daphna, I'm tickled to hear that you like the recipe! It always makes me happy to bake cornbread. About the brown sugar, I can't honestly say I taste a difference. Brown sugar is my standard baking sugar, so into the cornbread it goes. If you try it, let me know if you taste a difference. I'm curious!

Daphna, remember that oatmeal/fruit bar recipe you gave me? I think I'm going to give it a try this weekend. I'll let you know how it turns out for me. I'm think I will use your ingredient suggestions, as the original sounds a little austere and not sweet enough.

DebDye said...

All and everyting in Corn Bread Gospels are yummy in the tummy and my new fav hostess gift to bring to party or have around the house for hubby to munch on is Southern-Style Cornmeal Cheese Coins on pg. 157. They Rock! Polly want a cracker? With soup, salad, dips they go way beyond anything Polly ever chirped for.
Have you seen Dairy Hollow House Cookbook that Crescent wrote with Jan Brown? Find it, buy it and you'll find your copy soon dog eared and dripped on from lots of loveing use.
Also, please, invest in a cast iron skillet. Find a flea market or yard sale bargin and grab it up. You'll enjoy the difference, the homey, grandmas kitchens taste that it add to your cooking.

daphna said...

Yay, I hope you like it! You can chop the dried fruit/walnuts in the food processor if you want.

Rosiecat said...

debdye, what a wonderfully passionate message you left! First of all, let me assure you I agree wholeheartedly about The Cornbread Gospels, but I must confess, I haven't cooked much from it yet. I can't really say much about it as a cookbook for that reason, but I have a long list of things I want to make from it. And I adore Crescent Dragonwagon; she's like my Kitchen Fairy Godmother.

I took a peak at the Southern-Style Cornmeal Cheese Coins. They do look tasty! I'd like to make them for a party; they'd be a nice appetizer offering. Have you tried DK's Banana-Ginger Corn Muffins with Aphrodite Butter (pp. 138-139)? I made them for a brunch with friends, and they were amazing. Too good, in fact. And they freeze well, especially if you pop them in the oven for a few minutes to warm them up.

You know, it's funny that I haven't found a copy of Dairy Hollow House Cookbook! I will have to amend this wrongdoing of mine right away!

Finally, in my defense, I will say that I have been looking for a cast-iron skillet at second-hand shops but I haven't found one yet. My friend Daphna shared with me the information about her new skillet, so I might buy one like hers. Unfortunately, between bills, a trip to North Carolina in April, my taste in gourmet ingredients, and a little bit of shopping in the hopes that spring will eventually return, my wallet says I'm going to have to wait to buy a new skillet!

Daphna, I whipped up a batch of your bars..the first taste-test will happen this afternoon...I'll report back!